Filomena, while extolling the virtue of the day’s various munificent kings, uses her story to turn back to “people like ourselves” who are nevertheless capable of “laudable generosity.” During the Roman triumvirate, Publius Quintus Fulvius sends his son, Titus Quintus Fulvius, to study at Athens with a philosopher named Aristippus. Titus lives with his father’s friend, Chemes, and Chemes’s son, Gisippus. Titus Quintus Fulvius and Gisippus develop a strong “mutual friendship and brotherliness.” They are only relaxed when they’re together, and Chemes considers Titus a second son. When Chemes dies, both youths are heartbroken.
When Filomena turns back to “people like us” she still means wealthy and noble persons, not bourgeoise merchants. Her claim, however limited it is, is still democratizing, suggesting that generosity can cover other kinds of deeds than just the exchange of money and gifts. The tale’s setting is pointedly ancient and removed from the concerns of the brigata and recent history. And it takes great care to establish the intense bond of friendship between Gisippus and Titus, which is in turn founded on their fathers’ friendship.
A few months after Chemes’s death, Gisippus’s family helps arrange his betrothal to lovely, impeccably noble Sophronia. Shortly before the wedding, Titus asks to meet her, and when Gisippus takes him to her home, while trying to take the measure of her beauty, Titus falls under its spell and begins to burn “with a passion more ardent than any ever kindled by a woman in her lover’s breast.”
When Titus looks at Sophronia he is overcome by her beauty—and as other tales have already demonstrated, the route of obsessive love is through the eyes (in particular, the recent example of King Charles proves this point in X, 6). Love is strong enough here—stronger, in fact, than has been felt by any other lover ever—to overpower a previously impervious and perfectly balanced friendship.
Titus locks himself in his bedroom to meditate on Sophronia’s beauty, but the more he broods, the more he burns with passion. On the one hand, he chastises himself for being unable to treat Gisippus’s fiancée as a sister and tries to “bridle [his] lascivious desires.” He feels that his true duty lies with his best friend. Still, Love’s laws are more powerful than the rest, including friendship and even taboos against incest. At least, he thinks, his love is less awful than incest. And it’s natural since he’s a youth and thus subject to Love’s laws. The blame, he feels, lies with fortune, which gave Sophronia to his friend instead of someone else. But then again, he reasons, won’t her great beauty attract some lover eventually? And wouldn’t it be better for it to be a friend than a stranger?
Thinking about Sophronia adds fuel to the flames of Titus’s passion. King Charles showed that it’s possible for the chains of love to be broken through willpower, but he was an old man and a wise king; Titus’s youth and fervor help to tip the scales in love’s favor. And because love is more powerful than human reason—it cannot be bridled and broken, like a horse—his attempts to talk himself out of his feelings fail. Indeed, they backfire, as he blames fortune for failing to follow love in giving Sophronia to him and puts his reason to use justifying his feelings for his best friend’s fiancée.
Titus spends several exhausting days wrestling with his desires. Gisippus, distressed to discover that Titus has taken to his bed, ties to discover what’s wrong so he can comfort his friend. After giving a few implausible answers, Titus finally comes clean and confesses his love for Sophronia. He tells Gisippus about his internal debate, complains that he has failed fortune’s test of his virtue, and resolves to die as penance. Gisippus isn’t immune to Sophronia’s charms, but he is far less affected by them than Titus. Quickly deciding that “his friend’s life mean[s] more to him than Sophronia,” he assures Titus that his only sin was hiding his pain for days. Friends should share all their thoughts: the proper ones for edification and the improper ones to receive help.
Titus’s love is so forceful that it begins to make him ill. Gisippus can understand the attraction, for he also recognizes Sophronia’s beauty, but he doesn’t feel so passionately about her as his friend does. As the two men continue to discuss the predicament, it becomes increasingly hard to ignore the fact that their conversation about who has a better claim to Sophronia excludes her potential desires. She thus becomes an object to be traded or haggled over between the two. And this objectification—in addition to a gender hierarchy that considers men more important and valuable than women anyway—contributes to Gisippus’s quick assurance that his friend’s life is more important to him than the woman he’s supposed to marry.
Gisippus understands Titus’s love: Sophronia’s beauty and his noble spirit—highly susceptible to passionate feelings—virtually guaranteed it. Additionally, Titus should be blessing fortune for giving Sophronia to Gisippus instead of another man. Gisippus can’t recall a single thing he didn’t share equally with Titus, and his wife wouldn’t have been an exception. But, since they’re not yet married, he can do better than share and give her to Titus as a gift. Titus is delighted at the prospect but ashamed to need such incredible generosity from his friend.
Gisippus’s analysis of the situation connects love and class: people of noble temperament (and, in this case, of aristocratic class status) are both particularly susceptible to falling in love and worthy of being loved. And while Titus cursed fortune, Gisippus reminds him of how fast fortune’s wheel can turn and bring good things to those who suffer. If the conversation begins to strike modern readers as increasingly academic as it goes on, this is because the tale is less a narrative than it is an example of a rhetorical exercise on the theme of friendship. And as the friends discuss what to do, they neither imagine nor consider Sophronia’s needs and desires. When Gisippus offers her to his friend as a gift, it’s clear that they think of her more as an object to be possessed (or shared) than as another person.
Titus, inspired by Gisippus’s generous offer, reiterates that his duty lies with his friend. Since God didn’t give him Sophronia directly, He must have chosen Gisippus for his “superior worth.” Since God finds Titus “unworthy of such bounty,” he will conquer his grief or die trying. Gisippus leans on the power of their friendship to make Titus accept his offer: Gisippus would die of grief if he lost Titus, and Sophronia is Titus’s only hope for a cure. Wives aren’t nearly as hard to find as friends; Sophronia is more easily replaced than Titus. And, in giving her to Titus, Gisippus both gives her to his second self, and he improves her lot, since Titus is far nobler than he is.
Titus’s attempt to rebut his friend’s offer is belied by the force of love, which will kill him if he doesn’t have Sophronia. His claims that he is inferior to his friend also ring hollow, since the tale has so carefully established the similarities between the two. Gisippus’s rationale for preferring to lose Sophronia to Titus is steeped in misogyny, since he claims that women are indistinguishable and replaceable, in contrast to friends. The friends’ tendency to view her as an object to be shared rather than a person is confirmed in these comments.
Titus finally accepts Gisippus’s offer, in part because of his feelings for Sophronia and in part to please his friend by accepting. It must be managed carefully to avoid the scandal that would ensue if he were to propose it openly, after his family and Sophronia’s have finished marriage negotiations. So, he will fetch Sophronia, but Titus will take his place as her husband and consummate the marriage. Once it’s too late to change things, they’ll come clean, and everyone can either accept it or “lump it.”
The trade of Sophronia from one friend to another isn’t just a personal affair, and although they’re still not considering how this turn of events might strike her, they are aware that it could cause scandal by suggesting that Gisippus has changed his mind about the carefully negotiated marriage. Moreover, if Gisippus publicly renounces his claim, there’s no guarantee that Sophronia’s relatives will readily accept Titus in Gisippus’s place. Yet, the necessary subterfuge doesn’t bother either man, given their single-minded focus on the issue of securing and confirming their friendship through this act of extreme generosity. They even seem to expect that, once revealed, any reasonable person will agree with them, and the opinions of the rest can be utterly disregarded.
Titus slips from his bedroom into Gisippus’s adjoining bridal chamber on the wedding night. Taking Sophronia in his arms, he asks her if she wants to be his wife. Assuming that her husband has come to bed playing a lover’s game, she says “yes.” Titus puts his ring on her finger, declaring his desire to be her husband before consummating the marriage. Titus remains Sophronia’s secret, nighttime husband until he learns of his father’s death. He must reveal the truth if he wants to take Sophronia home with him. He and Gisippus first tell Sophronia; she complains bitterly about the trick and flees to her parents’ home. They’re also displeased, and they complain loudly enough for everyone—including his family—to censure Gisippus.
For all his willingness to trick Sophronia into marrying him, Titus is nevertheless anxious to make his marriage to her legal. According to medieval legal standards, the exchange of vows and rings followed by consummation counts as a legitimate, legally binding marriage (similar to the marriage contracted by Alessandro and the Abbot in White in II, 3). Nevertheless, an increasing emphasis on the consent of both parties (usually cited to prevent parents from forcing their children into unhappy marriages for political or material reasons) means that even medieval audiences would have been aware of and possibly uncomfortable over Titus’s evident deception, since Sophronia thinks she’s getting into bed with Gisippus. And, when the men are forced to reveal the truth, she doesn’t take the deception or the trade kindly, suggesting that she does have opinions about their plan, even if she wasn’t consulted.
Eventually, Titus loses patience with the gossip and anger. Believing that these Greeks need to be humbled so they will stop complaining, he gathers the families at a temple, where he gives them all a lecture. His first theme is fate and the role of the gods. People who complain about things that can’t be changed are second-guessing the gods, and this is blasphemy. The very fact that Sophronia is his wife now, he says, proves that the gods destined it. But since there are also mundane arguments for the marriage, he use “the logic of the mortals” for the rest of his case.
Just like the conversation between Titus and Gisippus earlier, Titus’s harangue of Gisippus’s and Sophronia’s relatives is a rhetorical exercise focused on philosophical ideas and rhetorical flourish. The argument he makes is syncretic (or a fusion of ancient Roman and medieval Christian ideas about religion) and wordy, but it basically boils down to the idea that whatever has happened was meant to have happened (or else it wouldn’t have happened). However, since this argument doesn’t address specific concerns about the trick the pair played on Sophronia and her family, he will offer further rebuttals as necessary.
The families are attacking Gisippus’s character for giving her to Titus. Instead, Titus maintains, they should praise his selfless friendship and great wisdom. For friendship, Titus simply reminds the crowd that its voluntary nature gives it a higher claim than family, which is controlled by fortune. As for wisdom, Gisippus demonstrated his by giving Sophronia to a better husband than himself. Although in some ways they are equal—Titus and Gisippus are both young philosophers—Titus is superior in others. He is Roman (Rome is superior to Athens), more noble (his family is ancient and powerful), and richer.
Titus articulates a very narrow concept of nobility here, which takes personal character into account but also considers wealth, title, and ancestry. While this suits his argument in this tale, it also contradicts The Decameron’s main argument that one’s character and choices are more important than the accidents of fortune such as one’s family of origin or current wealth. His comments also force a tiny wedge between the friends, who up to this point have been portrayed and have considered themselves to be exactly equal. Now, Titus exploits the differences between himself and Gisippus to claim that he’s the more worthy man.
Moreover, Titus claims, there is nothing inappropriate about the way his marriage happened. It did happen “secretly, by stealth,” but since that isn’t uncommon, no one should be upset. People who think that Gisippus had no right to dispose of Sophronia forget that fortune often works in “strange and wonderful” ways. For example, does anyone care how the cobbler fixes shoes as long as he does a good job? Since Sophronia’s marriage is desirable, it’s foolish to complain about how it happened. Finally, Titus explains that the marriage is honorable and legal: he didn’t rape Sophronia or make her his mistress. If she didn’t ask who she was consenting to as her husband in the dark, that’s her fault. Titus can hardly imagine more wrath being directed at Gisippus if he did something truly awful, like giving her to a serf.
Titus’s arguments about the legality and moral rightness of his marriage all depend on a conception of women as things to be disposed of and traded between men. Gisippus, because he was Sophronia’s fiancé, was set to become her master anyway, and this gave him the right to give her to his friend. The extended metaphor of the cobbler, furthermore, suggests that women are little more important than shoes. And he blames the victim for not ensuring that she was making promises to the correct man in the dark. These arguments collectively underline Sophronia’s secondary status—and the disenfranchisement of women generally throughout the tales.
Titus concludes that the families will “cheerfully accept” the situation “if [they] are wise.” It could be worse: instead of coming clean, he could have disowned Sophronia. He also threatens that any attempts to keep his wife from him or to treat Gisippus badly will end with him taking them both with him to Rome, by force if necessary, and becoming a life-long enemy of Athens. Taking Gisippus by the arm, Titus storms out “looking daggers” to show that he’s not intimidated. Persuaded both by his arguments and his threats, Sophronia’s family decides he makes a better in-law than enemy. They confirm their friendship and send Sophronia with Titus to Rome, where, making a virtue of necessity, she transfers her love to him from Gisippus.
At the conclusion of his carefully constructed and elegantly executed arguments, Titus backs himself up with threats and extortion; it seems his anticipation that the Greek families will accept the situation is based not so much in a feeling that they’re reasonable, but rather in a sense of his own superiority as a Roman. He reminds everyone that Sophronia is still vulnerable and that he has the power and the right to deprive her family of her or to disown and abandon her. Her family decides not to provoke Titus further, and sends Sophronia with him to Rome, where the tale assures readers that she came to love her new husband.
Left behind in Athens, Gisippus eventually loses the esteem of his fellow citizens. Following factional strife, he’s exiled in extreme poverty. He makes his way to Rome, in hopes of finding help with Titus. But when Titus fails to recognize him in his beggar’s rags, he believes that his friend no longer loves him, and he resolves to die. While sheltering in a cave overnight, he overhears two thieves stashing their loot and the bigger thief killing the smaller. He decides to avoid direct suicide by confessing to the murder and earning execution. After being arrested, he confesses to Marcus Varro, the praetor, and is sentenced to death.
However, while the first half of the tale featured Titus’s ascent from the bottom of bad fortune to the top, the second half of the tale sees Gisippus himself falling from the heights of fortune’s favor. He once confirmed his friendship with Titus by generously offering him Sophronia, and now he hopes that his friend will be even a little bit as generous with him. Yet, if fortune causes Titus to misrecognize Gisippus, it’s only to allow him to prove that his own love is as selfless and generous as his friend’s.
Coincidentally, Titus passes court at that moment, and he recognizes Gisippus by face and voice. Desperate to save his friend’s life, he also confesses to the crime. Marcus Varro is confused and upset, since these evidently phony confessions both demand punishment. Gisippus and Titus continue to make competing claims until Publius Ambustus, a notorious thug (and the real culprit) overhears. Inspired by their willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other, he confesses. After rumors of the strange case reach the emperor, he releases all three after learning about their true motives.
When Gisippus gave Sophronia to Titus, both friends described it as giving her to a second self. Titus acts out of this same logic when he tries to interpose his own body between his friend’s and the justice of the court. Their example is so moving that even hardened criminals respond to it, demonstrating the strength of true friendship among men.
Titus takes Gisippus home to Sophronia. After restoring his spirits, giving him nice clothes, and making him co-owner of all his own possessions, Titus arranges a marriage between his sister Fulvia and his friend Gisippus. Gisippus becomes a Roman citizen, and the two couples live in perfect harmony and friendship.
Now that Titus and Gisippus have been reunited, Titus has the opportunity to cement their friendship by offering his friend a wife in the same way that Gisippus once offered Sophronia to him. And again, Fulvia’s wishes aren’t considered; much like her sister-in-law, she is traded like an object between the friends. With harmony, balance, and exact equality between the friends restored, they live happily ever after.
Filomena ends her tale with a reflection on the nature of friendship, that sacred mother of generosity, sister of gratitude, enemy of hatred and greed, and inspiration of virtue. Sadly, it’s increasingly rare in a world directed by greed and self-interest. Only friendship could have inspired Gisippus to give Sophronia to Titus, prevented him from sleeping with her after she became his friend’s wife, and made him so unconcerned about losing the love of his relatives and becoming the target of slander. And only friendship could have inspired Titus to risk his life to save his friend, share his wealth, and give destitute, homeless Gisippus his own sister. So, while most people want large families and many servants, no one will be as faithful and selfless as a friend.
Filomena’s final comments, like so much of the tale, bear the hallmarks of a rhetorical exercise. But, coming as close to the end of The Decameron as they do, they also reflect the friendship that characterized the brigata. Importantly, she claims that friendship is a powerful force for moderation, encouraging virtue and discouraging vice. In the disordered and chaotic world, this order is rare, but the brigata itself represents the possibility for a just and well-moderated society.